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European Court case over reproductive rights in Poland deals with the selective abortion of a fetus with Turner’s syndrome

Date: May 27, 2011

On May 26th, European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a woman in Poland who was systematically denied the opportunity to receive and find out the result of diagnostic test for her fetus in time to selectively abort the fetus. Pro-choice activists celebrate the ruling as a victory for the women’s right to choose.

But the fetus’ condition in question is Turner’s syndrome, which is hardly a deadly disease or totally debilitating condition. According to Turtle Bay and Beyond, a international law blog (from the Religious Right perspective, which I disagree with–but I’m just citing them for factual information) :

The applicant, Mrs R. R. gave birth to a girl suffering from “Turner Syndrome”, a chromosomal abnormality affecting girls, whose symptoms are generally a short stature and sterility. She unsuccessfully requested the prosecuting authorities to institute criminal proceedings against the physician involved in handling her case. Mrs R. R. claims that she has been subject to degrading treatment (art. 3) since she was unaware of the health of her pre-born child and was denied the genetic tests in a timely manner.

I am preparing to travel to San Francisco in four hours so I don’t have the time to fully analyze or respond to the case, but I just want to point out that there is a complicated history of dialogues between reproductive rights movement and disability movement over cases like this, which appears to be completely ignored in the celebratory tone of the pro-choice groups’ responses.

Without going into whether or not a woman’s right to choose extends to the right to selectively abort fetuses on the basis of its real or perceived disabilities (or sexual orientation, etc.), pro-choice activists need to recognize that this is a complicated matter and take special care not to imply that people with Turner’s syndrome or other conditions and disabilities do not deserve to live.

Further, if we truly believe in women’s right to choose, we need to work toward eliminating societal barriers to raising children with various conditions and disabilities or to living with such conditions. The birth of a child with Turner’s syndrome does not need to be a tragedy to be avoided at all cost.


  1. I agree that we need to be sensitive about this, but we also need to be coherent. What is the underlying basis of the pro-choice argument? If it is grounded in the view that a woman herself is best placed to determine whether she can cope with motherhood at the relevant time – which I have always believed it is – then it is illogical to allow an exception when the foetus she is carrying might have a disability which would make it even more difficult for her to cope. (And Turner’s Syndrome, although not fatal or totally debilitating, can involve a number of health and intellectual disabilities, which Mrs RR testified had imposed severe strain on the mental health and well-being of the rest of the family. It isn’t just a case of an odd appearance and sterility, although reading right-wing anti-abortion sites might give you that impression.) If we make an exception based on our own judgment as to whether she should be able to cope with raising the child, then that opens the door to making that same judgment in other situations – and undermines the coherency of the pro-choice argument generally.

    Of course the judgment is not limited to cases of Turner’s Syndrome. Here in Ireland there have been two well-known cases where women were denied abortions despite foetal abnormalities which would lead to very severe impairment and the child’s death in infancy. Anecdotally, there are many reports of women facing the same resistance that Mrs RR faced in obtaining information about their foetus’s condition – indeed the woman who won her ECHR case against Ireland last year testified that she could not find a doctor willing to tell her if her cancer treatment might have harmed the foetus. RR v Poland is being celebrated as a victory for what it means to all these women and others like them, not what it means to Mrs RR alone.

    Your last paragraph, of course, would be equally correct without the reference to disabilities at all.

    Comment by Wendy — May 28, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

  2. @Wendy – thanks for your comment. I am afraid that you are missing my point altogether, so let me be clear: I am not criticizing the ruling. I am criticizing the pro-choice movement’s uncritical celebration of the ruling.

    It would not, as you suggest correctly, make any sense to “allow an exception when the foetus she is carrying might have a disability.” But the problem is that it is a “straw person” argument. The issue here is the selective abortion of foetus based on its genetic traits, not whether or not we need a more strict rule for abortion when the foetus has a disability.

    And even if we were to find the practice of selective abortion ethically or socially problematic, it does not follow that it must be made illegal. And yet, disability activists’ attempts to engage pro-choice activists in nuanced dialogues about the social implication of selective abortions are too often met with dismissive attitudes on the part of the pro-choice activists, as your response employing “straw person” reasoning exemplify.

    Disability scholars and activists do not accept that disabilities “impose severe strain on the mental health and well-being of the rest of the family,” but insist that the social conditions in which our bodies are “disabled”–through discriminatory policies and institution, lack of social support and inclusion, etc.–impose such “severe strains.” Why isn’t the Court of Human Rights taking up these socially imposed difficulties?

    I find it disturbing that pro-choice feminists celebrate the right to selective abortion without addressing its social implication on people whose lives are deemed less valuable, or at least stressing the need for support for parents who give birth to children with various disabilities and medical conditions; that you would step in and explain how the condition (Turner’s syndrome in this particular case) “imposes severe strains,” misidentifying the social and institutional causes of such strains; that “victory for what it means to all these women” excludes and devalues women living with Turner’s syndrome from the class of “women” deemed worthy of dignity and human rights.

    My last paragraph may be “equally correct without the reference to disabilities at all,” but it is the dignity of people with disabilities that is at stake here. To suggest that the reference to disabilities is irrelevant is similar to arguing that gender is irrelevant to addressing domestic and sexual violence because it would be equally wrong no matter who perpetrates them on whom. We need to keep the social context in which social issues arise intact in our conversations about these issues.

    Comment by emigrl — May 30, 2011 @ 11:00 pm

  3. that you would step in and explain how the condition (Turner’s syndrome in this particular case) “imposes severe strains,”

    Actually, what I said was that Mrs RR had testified that it imposed severe strains, which she did. It may be that those strains were actually societally-imposed, but we don’t have the detail of the full extent of the child’s syndrome. The social model of disability speaks to the usual tendency for society itself to be the cause of the “disabling” factors but, and this is acknowledged by many of those who generally advocate for the model, it cannot address every symptom of every disability. (In fact a recognition of this is implicit in your own comments, where you say that Turner’s Syndrome is not a “totally debilitating condition”.) To simply assume that the strains in the RR case were entirely societally caused is, again, to impose our own judgment on someone else’s situation.

    I referred to your last paragraph not to suggest that disability is “irrelevant” but to point out that it is not unique. Anti-choicers who derive their position from what they believe to be a left-wing perspective make exactly the same argument about abortions undergone for economic reasons. They state that the solution to pregnancies that are unwanted due to financial strain (which, even more clearly than in the case of disability, is societally-imposed) is to ensure that women have the supports they need to allow them raise the child without strain. Some of them also point out that there is an inherent classism in allowing economic circumstances to constitute a ground for abortion. Of course it is entirely possible to agree with this on principle and still believe firmly that as long as those strains do exist the option of abortion must be available. I have not heard anyone, apart from a few of those in the anti-choice camp, claim that it is devaluing the lives and dignity of working class people, or suggesting they don’t have a right to live, to celebrate a court ruling that upholds that option in such cases.

    It has been a weakness of the pro-choice movement generally that it has focused too heavily on the “right to choose” and underemphasised the societal factors that undermine the extent to which there really can be a meaningful choice. This is something that it should always aim to address in its responses. But I don’t believe that rhetoric like “you are implying that people with disabilities have no right to live” is helpful. THAT is a straw person, and one that features regularly in anti-choice propaganda, and it only encourages division between pro-choice and disability rights activists.

    Finally, the ECHR does not address the social conditions because the European Convention on Human Rights is, essentially, not a charter for social and economic rights. It is a weakness of the Convention (as well as of the broader western conceptualisation of the nature of rights), but not one that I think we can fairly lay at the foot of the judges. They can only make decisions based on the document in front of them.

    Comment by Wendy — June 1, 2011 @ 1:01 am

  4. Anyone who is truly interested in this topic should read some medical journal articles.

    See how the authors flip-flop, try to bore you out of reading it all, and just flat out LIE about Turner’s syndrome.

    A girl with Turners syndrome is actually LESS likely than a normal boykid to be mentally retarded. They actually have *improved* linguistic ability. They say it’s a trade off and Turner’s girls are not as good at “spacial reasoning”. Since math is taught in such a way to *exploit the weaknesses of males by constructing it to give them a fundamental brain virus*, of sorts (meme programming).
    Females naturally think, “Hmm. This is being taught strangely…in a dissociating way” and stop paying much attention.

    Now if a mother thinks she should terminate bc she is in a time or place that will be torturous with abuse toward such a child for its short stature and inability to bear children (though that evidence may be dicey too…I’ll hafta check…), then alright. But these kids are NOT mentally retarded as a rule.

    So girls of all chromosome combinations (X’s only) go on to do great things in number theory and medicine (NOT talking MDs or whatever here- I mean REAL healers). Unless they get caught first and burned at the stake for being so darned amazing. Can’t count the number of crusades that have been carried out with the goal of raping and killing midwives, “witches” (HEALERS), female mathematicians, and female martial artists (spatial reasoning, anyone?), you name it.

    So the research on Turners, confusingly written on purpose, means that simply being DEVOID of a Y chromosome (which is shrinking over time, btw) makes one a better intellectual specimen.
    Big uh-oh for all the woman-haters out there.

    Anyone who wants to dig, I recommend checking out “ova-fusion”, “females sperm”, “parthenogenesis”, 10th WEEK URINE TEST FOR SEX OF FETUS, and maybe try reading the self-contradictory article or two on the subject.
    Makes the head swim, but women can always start thereabouts for finding out their TRUE OPTIONS, which an OB or any “doctor” will EVER TELL THEM.


    Comment by Kali Cilak — September 6, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

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